Part 23 – Vanishing Distance
Rosenhatch Traverstorm stumbled out of the main hatch and onto the deck of The Dove’s Eye as she slewed wildly to port, almost hurling him to the floor. He barely maintained his firm grip on the biscuit tin he held with both hands.
One of Lord Corshorn’s crew rushed to him, clipped a lifeline to his belt and ran aft without so much as a word. The lifelines radiated out from the lifestem, the iron structure that joined ship to the air-rack to which the canopy was affixed. Between the two hung a series of rings to which the many lifelines were attached, making a hissing rattle as the lives they held ran across the deck. An intricate sequence of catches and sub-rings allowed the ropes to criss-cross without snarling the crew into tight knots.
Rosenhatch ducked under the more tightly wound lines about the edge of the ship where crew were undertaking some activity or other beneath the gondola itself.
He spotted Harvey without trouble, noting that even his enormous friend had been tethered to the deck. The vessel twisted sharply to starboard, this time tossing Rosenhatch off his feet and the tin out of his grasp. Lord Corshorn smartly snapped it out of the air, his feet remaining miraculously in touch with the bucking deck.
“Biscuits Traverstorm? It’s hardly the time for tea.”
“Indeed not, and I’d advise caution when opening it,” Rosenhatch pulled himself up, using Harvey’s shell for support, “I think we’ve found what pressed poor Bublesnatch into madness.”
Corshorn levered up the tin’s lid and recoiled at the sight of the white grub thrashing about in its interior. “Dear lord – from his eyes?”
“Well, one of them anyhow. We’ll need to fashion the lad a patch if he ever regains consciousness. The ghastly things burst out but we contained them all. I’ve no great hopes for his other eye mind, I wondered if you might take a glimpse Harvey.”
Traverstorm took the tin from the captain and popped it open for Harvey. He winced as the giant centipede speared the grub with his foot and brought it mere inches from his mandibles and eyes.
“Intriguing. From his eyes you say?” Harvey took Traverstorm’s nod for agreement and lightly snipped off the grub’s head with his mandibles. Traverstorm and Corshorn both looked away somewhat greener than before.
Harvey ejected the creature’s head neatly onto another of his feet. “Larval, obviously. It would be interesting to see precisely what they become. I trust we still have other specimens?”
“Oh yes, we’ve got at least a dozen of them.”
“Excellent. If you wouldn’t mind preserving a few, and dissecting one I’d be most grateful Rosenhatch.”
“Certainly, as long as all this banging about hasn’t harmed our kit,” he offered a querying eyebrow to the captain,” but I’m rather more concerned about the boy’s other eye.”
“I’m loath to suggest slicing it open, and it’s already taken several washes. I wonder if we might prise it out, with a spoon or similar and see if we can’t cut the eggs off the back. If they are inside the eyeball then there’s not much hope.” Harvey mused.
“Fascinating,” interjected the captain, “and though I share your concern for the boy’s eye you may have noticed we’re in some difficulty up here as well.” He gestured at the darkness which surrounded the airship. “It seems we are not quite where we thought we were.”
“I thought we were mapping the place,” remarked Rosenhatch.
“We were, but that’s become difficult – Harvey?”
“Yes captain. Initially I could sense the various openings and and spaces within this Sky Cliff, but it has all begun to change. The very structure of the place is changing. You recall that central pit we were heading for? Well it’s gone now. I am unable to predict where we are heading for more than a few moments at a time, hence our rather hasty corrections.”
Traverstorm had not previously noticed the silk flags tied to two pairs of Harvey’s legs. During their conversation he had been flicking them, apparently at random, but Traverstorm now dimly perceived them as directions to the crew.
“Ah,” Harvey’s gentle tone belied the stress behind it, “gentlemen I believe that we are trapped.”
As if to emphasise Harvey’s warning a deep groan echoed around them, shortly followed by a shriek from below the airship.
“Haul ’em up lads, do it now!” bellowed Lord Corshorn and immediately a series of pulleys snapped taut the lifelines and reeled in furiously. The crewmen on the other ends appeared suddenly in the light of the airship’s deck as if flying in from the darkness. A couple fell hard to the deck where their mate picked them up, but the more experienced skipped through the air, apparently having run up the ship’s side and landed neatly in the centre of the deck as the pulleys slackened their grip.
“Report,” commanded the captain..
“Sir, we’re being squeezed in. I was hanging off the keel and touched rock with my boots, then it pressed up.” The speaker wiped sweat from her forehead and unconsciously squeezed the lifeline between her fists.
“She’s right,” Harvey added, “this cavern’s growing smaller.”
The ship suddenly lurched again, this time without direction from the centipede.
“Dammit, it’s squeezing the bags. We’ll be crushed by them if can’t get free. I’m open to suggestions.”
Blank and panicked looks were shared by all, except for the crewmember who had come up from below. Her name – Freymald – popped into Traverstorm’s head as she spoke again:
“Fire, sir. I dropped my lantern when I was standing on the cavern, sir. It broke on the rock , and well it sounds strange sir, but it twitched, and pulled back away from me. Like it was alive sir.”
“That sounds exactly as strange as everything else we’ve encountered here. Fire it is.”
Shouts, cries and the usual business of ordering a ship about followed. Harvey untethered himself and dashed aft to retrieve the enormous cannon he had toted earlier when facing the winged beasts. Traverstorm stood, holding the empty biscuit tin until Freymald seized him by the arm.
“You’ll not want to be standing here in about a minute Professor,” she said, hauling him towards the cabins, “the captain’s about to light our way.”
They reached the hatchway and clipped themselves onto the internal lifelines that ran along the inside of the hallways, then leaned out of the doorway to watch.
Harvey re-emerged with the artillery strapped to his shell. Two crewmen anchored him firmly, driving bolts of steel into the wooden deck at four points around him. Another pair of crewmen crouched by the railings at the front of the gondola, hugging canvas sacks to their chests. Harvey’s gun let out an aching roar and it blazed its charges into the darkness. Instead of just disappearing into the abyss, they struck the walls of the cavern almost immediately, lighting up a stretch of grey rock which flinched and writhed in the explosive light. His volley paused for a moment and the crouching crewmen leaped to their feet and off the railings, landing on the volatile rock face beyond. With hammers and pitons they fastened the canvas sacks to the wall and threw themselves back on board.
Harvey gave them a moment to move aside before unleashing another fusillade from his mighty weapon. The canvas sacks detonated immediately, searing the front of the gondola. The scream that followed shook the vessel and her crew to the bone. The whole cavern spasmed around them and the rock face ahead of them fell away. They began to move, lurchingly thrust past the burning wall. The Dove’s Eye bumped and grated as it was forced through the vast Sky Cliff, forced onwards with its flaming prow jabbing at the rocks which folded away to avoid its touch. With a harrowing tearing sound from high above the airship, they burst out into daylight.
Next Week: Part 24 – The Taste of Light
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